Background

The origin of the word Zionism is, of course, the word Zion. That word, in itself, is one of the stranger words in the Hebrew language, meaning at one and the same time, both a place and an idea. Even the place identified as Zion has changed with time. Originally identified with a Jebusite (Canaanite) citadel, conquered by David and first mentioned in our sources in that context, the place of Zion shifted substantially with time. It always meant part of Jerusalem, but which precise part changed to include different parts of the city in different periods: at some times, it was used to refer to the whole city.

In addition, it became a concept referring to the entire homeland, especially when viewed from afar. We see this process beginning with the famous lament of the exiles in Babylon at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. when they mourn over “Zion” (Psalm 137). As they think of their destroyed homeland, they weep as they “remember Zion” and as their captors demand of them “songs of Zion.” Clearly they are thinking of their entire homeland and not just their capital city – or parts of it!

With time, the dominant useage refers to the homeland viewed from afar. And many poems, prayers and laments are written in praise of, or in memory of Zion. Central among these is the famed poetic cycle – Shirei Zion (Songs of Zion) written by the great twelfth century Spanish Jewish poet Yehudah HaLevi, who wrote what perhaps must be considered the ultimate series of poems of yearning for Zion. “Zion, ha’lo tish'ali…” (Zion, Will you not ask after the welfare of your captives…) is among the best known of poems/songs about the deserted and abandoned homeland.

The strange and varied use of the term to denote both a place and an idea is perhaps a central metaphor for understanding in general, the fate of the land itself in the minds of the Jewish people. The land – Zion, Israel, Judah, Canaan – has undergone an extraordinary series of transformations over time. Sometimes it has been seen as a real place anchored in a specific physical reality like all other places. At other times it has been seen as an idea, hovering in an intermediate place between reality and dream, a spiritual entity as much as a physical one. This tension, between the reality and the dream, has very important implications for our subject. Let us briefly explore some of the most prominent aspects of this development. We start with the roots of the process which must take us back to Babylon.

 

 

 

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06 Jul 2005 / 29 Sivan 5765 0